Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Zombie Apocalypse is Coming to a College Near You

Dear Diary: For the past month now it has been getting worse.  Just about every third kid here, at Durham, has been coughing.  I think the plague is moving into town.  I am, after all, in Europe.  I cannot take it.  I sit up at high table in the dining hall and listen to them; it's like a symphony of coughing.  These students, they cough on each other and they are trying to cough on me.  The other day I tried three times to go into the dining hall, only to leave, as the coughing was closing in around me.  Professors are getting sick left and right.  These students will just stand there, look at the other person, and cough in their face; the surrounding students nonplussed. I am on my third bottle of purell already and becoming worried.  wait, i think they are coming for me, the coughing down the hall is getting worse, they are banging on the door, I... 

                                  (picture courtesy of the Center for Disease Control)
Zombie Banner

All my students, if they learn anything at all in my courses--which they usually don't--is that I am obsessed with the impending Zombie apocalypse.

Don't laugh folks, it's coming.

So, why am I so obsessed with zombies?  As my students know--yes, they are wasting their money taking my courses--I am a raging hypochondriac, anxiety-ridden neurotic, fully equipped at all times with hand-sanitizer, dental floss, nasal irrigation equipment, stomach medicine, xanax, ear plugs, and my iPhone.  Why iPhone?  Common folks, keep up with me.  So i can plot a course away from the zombies, and get the latest news as well.

If my behavior puzzles you, then you are obviously part of the herd, lulled to sleep by the corporate media machinery.  It also means you don't know the rules for surviving a zombie apocalypse: cardio, the double tap, avoid bathrooms, wear your seatbelt...

Go on, laugh all you want, but if you want to live, which I am sure you do, you had better memorize these rules--click here.  And, when done with that, read The Zombie Survival Guide by Max Brooks.  Otherwise, it is brain stew for dinner and you are the main ingredient.

And why, some of you may ask--thinking yourself much smarter than you actually are--would my iPhone work in a zombie apocalypse?  You know the IT person in your building, right?  Or your local computer geek?  Ever wonder why they have a dry, ironic smile on their face or are always quietly laughing to themselves?  Cause they are going to live in your mansion and drive your Mercedes when the zombie apocalypse hits and you--cause you just wouldn't listen--became a brain sandwhich.

Said another way, if you are clueless about the importance of communication technology in the zombie apocalypse, you are either cruel to the IT person in your building, or don't know what IT support is; or have never gone to lunch with an IT support person.  (Click here for more on geek picture).

If you did take them to lunch--which I am sure you are not going to do--you would know that we computer geeks, after fighting over which version of Dungeons and Dragons is the best--I prefer versions 2 and 4 myself--rehearse the relative merits of the zombie rules and how to maintain some sort of telecommunications infrastructure, including CB radio, cause short-wave radio people are snobs.  My friends Mike, Kevin, Russ and Sean can wire-up a router and communications system in a few hours, while i round up family and supplies.  And how about you?   As Stevie Ray Vaughn sang, when the zombie apocalypse hits, if the IT house is a rock'n, don't come a knock'n, cause we geeks ain't letting you in.  My fellow IT geeks and I have even built computer simulations of the impending apocalypse--If you do not believe me, click hereHeck, one of our models even made it into a high-school biology textbook--way to go, by the way, Mike!

Okay, so maybe I am being a bit dramatic, but I am a drama queen as well, so...  But seriously, if you do take my word for it, see last year's campaign, put together by the Center for Disease Control.

Even the freaking CDC understands what's coming, although they "couch it" of course in the language of humor, saying that preparing for a zombie apocalypse is really teaching people how to get ready for all sorts of "real disasters."  Those of us in the know, however, are not fooled.  We know they are just preparing the weak-minded for the inevitable--if you do not believe, watch one of their videos.  (I hear my wife telling me to take my medicine and stop scaring everyone!--ha!  Okay, fine, there I took my medicine.)

Okay, so why am I going on about zombies?  And, what does any of this have to do with being in jolly old England?  I will pick up where my diary left off.  First of all, I did not die.  Turns out, instead, that the coughing coming down the hall was from the cleaning lady, who was knocking on my door to give me some fresh towels.  Thanks so much.

Anyway, back to my paranoid rant.  I am in Europe, right?, where the first several zombie apocalypses took place.  Again, common folks, do any of you read history?  Remember the Black Death or the long list of nasty epidemics.  Click here is see a short list of hundreds!

And who started all these plagues, you ask?  I will tell you--and I am completely factually correct here--college students.  Yes, that is right, even before they had colleges, students were traveling the world, living together in hostels, coughing all over each other, not washing their hands and putting their paws on each other's food, drinking all night, not wearing coats in the cold weather, eating poorly, not taking their vitamins to keep their immune systems strong, not sneezing or coughing correctly into the nook of their elbow; instead, sneezing and coughing into their hands and then rubbing it all over everything they touch; failing to open doors or push elevator buttons with their elbow; not properly washing their hands of using hand sanitizer; sitting right next to and having fun with people who are openly contaminated and evidently sick.  Come to think of it, college students are down right vile.

If you don't believe me, how about the words of an infectious disease specialist?

For several years, each summer, I lectured in a course on community health science to medical students at Northeast Ohio Medical University.  Every year, my colleague, our infectious disease specialist, would give a two-hour lecture to the students on disease transmission.  I remember the first time I heard his lecture. He said, "You know what the most vile, disease ridden transmitter of infectious disease is?"  The students would fire off various answers, including rats, the cockroach, mosquitoes, etc.  "No," he would say, "You are.  Yes, that's right.  The nastiest transmitter of disease is college students."

And so, what have I learned from all of this?  Actually, nothing.  It seems that exploring cultural differences across continents only takes you so far.  In the end, we can only civilize ourselves so far, as we, as a species, seem to enjoy passing along our nasty colds to one another.

But, even a paranoid like me sees the silver lining in all of this.  If you have watched War of the Worlds, you know my point.  When the nastiest of all apocalypses happens--that of aliens attacking from another planet--we are ready, cause we zombies will share with them our bugs.  Ahchoo!

Monday, October 29, 2012

Small Portions and a Bag, Please; Or, How They Even Bag the Bags in the U.K.--A Sociology of the Grocery Store

I have never seen anything quite like it before.  I walk into the grocery store in the U.K and am ready to shop.  Okay, give it to me, I say.  Let's see how the Brits do grocery shopping, cause you know in the states, we take grocery stores seriously, i mean really seriously.

However, I no sooner begin to walk down the isles when I am struck by a realization that does not require a doctorate in sociology to catch. Everything, I mean everything, is bagged, boxed, sealed: the fruit are sealed, the vegetables are sealed; heck, even the magazines are in bags!  I am serious.  Now, in the states, in all fairness, one does often find magazines in bags, but it is usually the naughty ones. Here, even the gardening magazines are bagged.  It makes me want to buy one. What? 

(This picture of the fresh produce in a Marks & Spencer 
was taken from the Green Gourmet Giraffe


As I am standing there I think, this is the student's grocery store.  Maybe they don't want the kids putting their disease-infested paws on the merchandise.  I mean, cause just about every third kid here has been coughing for the past week like the plague is moving into town. 

To test my theory I decide to run next door to the upscale grocery store--which is, literally, next door, in the next building.  That close?  Yes.  I think it is showing off.  The upscale store is called Marks & Spencer, which is the U.K.'s equivalent of Whole Foods in the States.  However, they also sell clothing, appliances--you name it.  In fact, I got a really nice wool sweater for only 29 pounds.

I look around and, again, everything is in little packages.  In fact, they come off the delivery truck this way.  Now, I think to myself, I have a bad back and have my wife and daughter lift everything at home--common, they're strong--but I have to say that I think that even my metro-sexual self could carry these packages and look rather manly.

"Excuse me mam, but I have to carry in the baby carrots..."

File:Jamie Oliver retouched.jpgBut then I panic.  Something is not right here.  "Where is Jamie Oliver!" I scream, "Does he know about this?"  

For those in the States who eat at McDonalds and have yet to hear of Jamie Oliver, he is a world-renown, rock-star cooking phenomenon.  Maggie (my wife) and I, who are total foodies, used to watch his first major British export show, The Naked Chef--I am sure to many a girl or guy's chagrin, Jamie, who is rather good looking, was not naked.  But, the food was, and that is the point.  One of Jamie Oliver's missions has been to improve the quality of food people eat in the U.K., the states and places elsewhere.  He is particularly concerned about obesity issues and the quality of food in school cafeterias.  In short, he is a good bloke!

Oliver's concern with food and obesity, as I click my heels together, reminds me there is no place like home--back in the damn, good, old U-S-of-A.  Suddenly I am teleported back to the States, in the background is Jamie Oliver singing Somewhere Over the Rainbow.

Now, if the packages in the UK are tiny, the opposite is true in the states.  Here, we like it BIG! BIG! And really DAMN BIG!  Yeah, common now, I want 500 rolls of toilet paper on sale and an extra-large bag of 3000 frozen shrimp!  I got a party tonight"

Fact is, in the states we like everything in our grocery stores to be huge, with thousands and thousands of selections--here, for example, is a list of hundreds and hundreds of U.S. grocery store chains.

(An American Grocery Store, taken from the
interesting travel blog, American Corporate Runaway)
We need twenty-five different yogurt selections; fifty different brands of potato chips; we need high quality beef, medium quality beef, etc.  And all the beef, or well most of it, is pumped with red dyes to make it look beautiful!  The exception to such wonder, of course, is the meat sold in poor grocery stores or the stuff 'on sale' today for the low-low-price of diarrhea or botulism.  Hell, we even wax the lettuce in the states, or in the better grocery stores we spray it regularly with mists of water gathered by monks from the Himalayan mountains and piped in fresh, from a water pipe millions of miles away.  Also, don't forget the polished apples, the 'tourched-ripened' bananas and the availability of fruits all year round, even though such things should only be available when in season.

I can go on, oh yes I can.  Fact is, you do not want me to get started about food.  I spend lots of time on food in my classes.  And when I do, my students often start crying and screaming, suddenly the world around them loses meaning, they begin pulling out their hair, realizing the burgers they eat contain a thousand different cow parts, and are regularly pumped with pink slime--yes, the soylent pink, watch this brilliant video by Jamie Oliver.

Suddenly I hear Charlton Heston screaming--soylent green, it's people! (For the younger audience, this is the acting vacuum in which we existed until Will Smith--my hero!--came along) The students get up, madness in their eyes, they run for the doors, begging the god in which they believe to restore normality, like lemmings they run at the windows, diving onto the grass, getting in their cars and driving right into lake Erie.

The dust settles and all that remains is one skinny male student, with a grin on his face, as he could give a crap less, hung over, but making it all right by eating a fast food hamburg,

"You Rock! Dr. C. Great lecture!  Way to give 'em hell!  You're the best!"

As I stand there, it strikes me that, while the UK has an obesity problem catching up quickly with the states, it seems that, at least here in Durham, their portioned, packaged and modest approach--albeit unattractive to my 'farm-market' eye--is an interesting counterpoint to the 'model-like' runway of food display in the states.  Both have their pros and cons

"Dear god," I finally say, "give me some of that burger."  Okay, the meat has calmed my primitive brain down.  All I need, now, is a tiny package of shrink-wrapped peaches.

Back to the UK, somewhere over the cellophane rainbow, do I go...

Monday, October 22, 2012

Attention British Males, no spitting or swearing and please push the baby cart

I do not know if it is true of all British males, but at least around university it seems the middle-class males are groomed to avoid two behaviors that I enjoy immensly but have ceased while being here.

These guys do not really swear--which I, like some alcoholic in need of a morning drink, get started with as soon as I wake up.  Even my poor mother has to listen to me swear when we stay at their house; I'm all F-this and F-that and that person is a jerk, and scr*w them, and that is just for breakfast, while my wife, daughter, dad and mom just look at me.  i have a problem, i am a middle-aged male, come on, somebody must relate to the growing contempt i have for ignorance, and i cannot even imagine what I will be like when I am in my 80s.  phew!

And, these guys don't spit.  Since I got here my allergies have been all over the place.  So today I could not get my nose cleared--you know where this is going but you will keep reading, because you have to.  So I snorted up a nasty loogie.  For the 'properly mannered' in the audience, a loogie is a big slimy glob of snot, waiting to be projected at least a good ten feet from one's mouth by rearing back and spitting.  So, reflexively, I loogied up one, and just as I was about to "let it fly" as they say, I suddenly remembered, nobody around here spits.  What am I to do?  I panicked, then decided wrongly to carry the loogie around until i could get to a garbage can or something, which now made me want to throw up.  So i just swallowed it.  Oh, god, yes, I know. that is disgusting.

I also noticed that men around here push the baby strollers and helping out with the kids.  That is something you definitely do not see in the states--but, I could not find any statistics to support my anecdotal observation, so at the macro-level I could be wrong.  Anyway, the only other place I have seen men engaged in such a high level of childcare is in Scandinavia, particularly when we were in Copenhagen.

And, of course, all the Brits queue perfectly.

But, I will tell you, Brits will just as soon push you to the ground then get out of your way when walking--come on now, laugh, we are having fun; I am not in any way serious.  Still, case in point.  I was walking along the river today as two women, from opposite directions, approached one another.  Nobody else on the path and yet they walked right at each other.  I could not understand it.  Any American or European where I have visited, with sense, would move to one side of the other.  Not these women, they just barreled on, almost slamming into one another.  And yet, as the Brits display everywhere, they were nonpulsed by the whole thing.  I, on the other hand, was a nervous wreck.  "Why do they do that?" I asked myself.

And I see it everywhere--Brits missing each other within inches of their lives.  I even watched two mates walking a path with an old women coming along, trying to manage the cobblestone walkway with her cane, and they just barreled right along, she getting out of their way.

Honestly, I think it all has to do with the Brits driving on the wrong damn side of the road.  It confuses them and so, when they walk, nobody knows what side to take.  And you see my frustration in the eyes of other foreigners, as they try to figure out which side of the lane to take, with the Brits just accosting them from every direction possible.  With all the frustration you would think someone would swear or spit or run their baby cart into someone else.  And yet it does not "go down that way" as they say.  Instead, it all seems to work, except for me.  I want to spit and swear.  But, I do not.  I am in the UK and I am trying to learn.  Some lessons, however, are harder than others.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

I think Humans Would Complain About Heaven

The other day I was talking with my daughter, Ruby, on the phone.  She said, "Dad, what are you going to do now, when we hang up on the phone?"  I said, "Well, I have to go freaking go downstairs to the dining room and get something to eat."  She laughed.  "Dad, you are eating in a Harry Potter dining hall and your food is free, what are you complaining about?"  I just laughed back.  She is right.  You can have just about everything in your life going you way and still complain.  What is wrong with us humans?  Or, maybe is it just me. I hope so.

The stupidity of my complaint made me realize that I have yet to post any pictures of Durham and where I am staying, so here are some pictures.

This picture is the entrance to Castle, where I am staying, which I pass through on my evening walk

This is a view of the Durham Cathedral and courtyard.  The castle is to the left of this picture

This is a bit of a picture of the Durham marketplace

Another view of the castle from one of the bridges near the market

Yet another view of the castle from one of the bridges near the market

A View of the Cathedral near the castle

This is what the inside of the castle looks like.  Off to the right, at the top of the castle keep, is where my dorm room is located.

A few pictures of the market down below the castle


Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Global and the Local and the Politics of TIme


(A Picture of the United Nations in New York City, taken from Wikipedia)

As one can imagine, being a visiting professor at an internationally recognized university affords one the opportunity to talk with colleagues from around the world.  Such conversations become some of the best one can hope for, as they inevitably become a case of comparative analysis.  They, for example, tell you how things go in their country; you tell them how it goes in yours; and, through such comparisons one begins to note similarities and differences.

Today, finally, a major political similarity emerged for me between the states, the UK, and the rest of eastern and western Europe.  Given that I teach global social problems, it was not entirely new to me, but you know how, sometimes, a thing just suddenly hits you.

Actually, the insight is not mine to claim.  I was having a great conversation during a five mile walk around Durham with four other faculty: German/Polish, German, British and Portuguese.  The question, initially asked of me, is what I thought about the presidential election in the states.  My response, summarized, was that there is a long list of global problems facing the states today, from global markets and international competition for jobs to the Chinese economy and the rise in eastern European manufacturing to the British pound and the struggles of the European Union to the rise of the middle-classes throughout places like India and Australia.  All of these things have significantly changed the economic foundation of the states.  But, you would not know it from our politics: it is as if all the problems are internal, with little discussion to the fact that we now live in a global society that is highly unstable.  As such, I do not think things will get better in the states for a while.  But, we are hanging in there.

No sooner did I finish my argument when each of the other professors, in succession, made similar arguments about their respective countries and those around them, with some situations worse that ours in the states, such as Spain and Italy and Greece and Ireland and Portugal.

Anyway, as we made our rounds of insight, the professor from Germany/Poland summarized it all well.  He said, "You know, I see it like this.  Global problems take a lot of time and effort to solve; meanwhile the political machinery of most countries is much shorter in time and scale and far too local in focus to deal with these problems effectively. Look at how Germany, for example, struggles to manage itself in relation to the EU.  These are very complex problems that the average person needs to become more educated about if there is to be a political will to solve them.  And, as we have seen over the last decade, from the housing crisis to the banking scandal, the less globally informed we, the average people, are, the more unstable the global environment becomes because the political structure necessary to stabilize it, from country to country, is absent."

Well said, I commented back, well said.

Friday, October 19, 2012

York, Foreign Food and the Corporations

(Sky View of York and a Video I took of the Bells at the York Minster Cathedral)

How do you like the title of this post--York, Foreign Food and the Corporations?  How and why would I put all those things together in regard to a city in northern England?  Well, I will tell you.

First things first.  I decided last weekend to get out of Durham for the day, as this lovely town is a bit small.  Our friend Beth--who is a self-employed paintings conservator in Cleveland Ohio and a new mom, yeah for her and Mike!--did a year's fellowship at Cambridge and toured the country.  One such journey brought her and colleagues to Durham's cathedral.  She said "A lovely town, but it seems it could quickly start feeling a bit small, especially coming from Cleveland."  She is right.  In fact, many of the professors here live in towns elsewhere: York, Newcastle, etc.

So outward into the countryside did I proceed to go see York.   

(Here are some pictures I took as I entered into the City)

York is a wonderful city--click here to read a bit more--known for the largest Gothic cathedral in northern Europe, and for a variety of other great historical and cultural points of interest, including its various cuisine, ham and, finally, for what are called the shambles.  I'll let Wikipedia explain the shambles: "The Shambles (official name Shambles) is an old street in York, England, with overhanging timber-framed buildings, some dating back as far as the fourteenth century. It was once known as The Great Flesh Shambles, probably from the Anglo-Saxon Fleshammels (literally 'flesh-shelves'), the word for the shelves that butchers used to display their meat. As recently as 1872 there were twenty-five butchers' shops in the street but now there are none. There is still a butcher in the adjacent Little Shambles which leads to York's open-air Newgate Market."

 Here are two pictures I took of the Shambles.

As my family and friends know, I tend to tour cities through their food and by talking with locals.  Few things make me as happy as being the only outsider in a restaurant or section of town and completely, as my friend Ron would say, assimilating into the environment, going "completely local."  In short, I want to be as far away from my fellow tourists as possible.  If a crowd is moving along and they are going north, I immediately turn around and go south.  I also like to make directional mistakes, as that is when often the most interesting things happen.

So, for me, two things stood out on my first and then second trip to York. 

FOOD Reflects Growing Diversity
I apologize ahead of time to my British friends--I am just having some fun here--but while your facility with our shared language is so brilliant as to make me want to stop talking, the "food of the country" here is rough.  I mean, it's not McDonalds.  But...  Well, why don't we let Wikipedia do the explaining.  Here is how it politely puts it together: "British cuisine is the specific set of cooking traditions and practices associated with the United Kingdom. British cuisine has been described as "unfussy dishes made with quality local ingredients, matched with simple sauces to accentuate flavour, rather than disguise it."  Unfussy is one way to put it.  Phew.  Bangers and mash, black pudding, baked beans and scrambled eggs, Toad in the hole.  What, I am not eating that.

And, the potato, what is up with that?  I could be entirely wrong, but it seems to me that, if Americans are hysterical for 'all things meat' (pork, steak, burgers, hotdogs, sausage, lamb chops, pork chops--you get my point), the Brits are just as mad for the potato.  I cannot think of a local meal I have had here that did not include some play on the potato.  They even have a website devoted to the potato, for god's sake--click here.  And you can follow the potato women on twitter, as they share their memories of their joyous potato experiences.  Wow!  Try to find that kind of potato enthusiasm in the states.  Even their salads have potatoes on them.  And, if you don't want a potato, they offer you fries, which are called chips when served with fish--which goes to another point.

Now, you would think, with the UK being an island, they might try doing something with fish other than deep frying it, but this appears to have escaped them so far.  But, I will admit the fish-n-chips are quite good--in fact, that is all I ate the first three days in the country--and, okay, I am just having some fun, so please let me stay a bit longer.  I really, really do love this Island.

Actually, of all the places I have traveled, the most limited cuisine was in Sweden and Norway.  All they seemed to eat was hamburgers.  Even my daughter, who was 9 at the time, started losing it, digging in people's gardens in search of a vegetable.  (Click here to read more about traditional British cuisine.)

Humor aside, what really stands out to me in York was said by several of the travel books I read to prep for my trip: London and some of the larger cities in the UK are becoming rather international, not just with tourists, but also with a growing diversity of cultures and foods.  In this way, I think British cuisine is similar to the states: the food eaten is really not any one food; instead, it is food from all over the world, and that is worth writing about.  Here, for example, is a bit from an article in the The Press--click here to see full article.  They state:

York has traditionally been viewed by many as a WASP city – overwhelmingly white, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant. But new research has shown York to be a very different city in 2010, with the ethnic minority population having more than doubled in the past decade to almost 22,000.  The research, commissioned by the York-based Joseph Rowntree Foundation, also revealed there were now more than 70 different languages being spoken in the city and an estimated 800 migrant workers were currently employed in York.
Case in point.  I had two of my best meals in the UK so far in York.

The first was a fantastic Indian restaurant and the second was an Indochinese Restaurant, called The Evil Eye Lounge--think Berkeley hippies meet Southeast Asian cooking meet British pub and you get this place.  I absolutely loved it.  And, to 'top it off,' freak n' Rick Steve's recommended it.  Now that ought to say something.  So, increasing diversity is something that really stood out to me.  The other was the slow corporate takeover.

CORPORATIONS versus the Local Shops
I have a really hard time with the states and the way in which 'corporate-everything' has pushed its way into every nook and corner of our lives.  In fact, one of the reasons I travel to Europe so much is to get away from corporate-based food, clothing, hotels, you name it.  Any American reading this blog knows what I am saying, particularly if you are a small business person or live in a small town and watched the strip-mall, as they call it, slowly encroach upon everything, clogging up the streets and ruining the whole vibe.

Unfortunately, while the UK is not anywhere near as corporate-overwhelmed as even my little town of Willoughby Ohio, USA, it seems to be getting there.  My second trip to York led me into their open market.  As I stated in a previous blog, my hero Anthony Bourdain is always talking about street food and the absolute awesomeness of local and street vendors.  I completely agree.

So, here is what happened.

I have been looking, while in the UK, for a leather winter coat; and so I see this stand with two guys and some great leather coats.  No sooner do I touch the first coat and one of the guys is already all over me, "Hey, you want to try that on?  Great coat, will totally fit you.  Now, I got it for 300 pound, last one, but i am willing to sell it to you for, say, 120 pound.  Common, try it on."  As soon as I hear the man say all of this, I am in heaven, as we are going to have a fun conversation.  "Wow," I say, "You are good.  But, no, I do not want to try on the coat; I just got here.  Besides, I am trained in the art of sale by constantly visiting my brother, who lives in the other York."  "What other York?" he says.  "You know," I say, "New York City!"  Ah, both men burst out laughing.

We proceed to have this fantastic conversation.  Turns out, both guys are from Istanbul and they and their families have moved here.  We talked about life in large cities and how urban living wears on people and the joy of small cities and towns, like York.  Eventually we get to the corporations.

The one guys says, "You see how the corporations have moved in here; makes it difficult for small businesses like us."  "Yes," I said.  "I see the American companies, obviously, but also the British-European corporate places as well: Cafe Nero, Cafe Rouge, Bella Italia, the department stores, the pharmacies..."  "Yes," the one guy says, "and we even have the British version of your T.J.Maxx; it's called T.K. Maxx."  I said, "No way?"  "Yes," he said, "look right there."  I take a picture.

"Run," I tell them, "run while you can."  We all started laughing.

But then the laughing stops and it is time for me to move on.  As I walk away, I say to myself, I hope such things never become too popular here; local, local, local, that is what makes the UK and so much of Europe great!  The wonderfully odd tea shops, the funky fish places, the dusty old menswear stores, the British memorabilia shops, the endless chocolate stores, there is nothing quite like it.  And, we need to find a way back to it in the States.  I am going to really miss this place when I leave.  These people are my kind of wierd.



Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Watching the English

Our friend, Chris, who works with Maggie at the Cleveland Museum of Art, sent along a great book for me to read and I think everyone should "check it out," as they say.  The title, as the picture above shows, is Watching the English.  It is written by Kate Fox, who is an anthropologist and member of the SIRC (Social Issues Research Center) at Oxford.  While an academic, this book is anything but stale--fear not students, the book is very entertaining.  In fact, students might see this book on the reading list this Spring--ha!

Anyway, Chris and her husband are extensive travelers, having even passed through Durham--I say now!--and Chris found this book very well done.  I agree, having read through quickly the first couple chapters, which can be perused at Amazon--click on the book picture or title above.

Books such as these hit me just right.  As my family friends and most students know, I am a huge fan of travel-anthropology type books.  I am also a huge, huge fan of Anthony Bourdain's "No Reservations travel show--which, sadly, is in its final season.  In fact, most of my conversations at table with other faculty here at Durham revolve around such matters.  Culture, to me, is endlessly fascinating, how it is that people creatively get on with the day.  The other person I know who would be as mad about such 'table conversations' as me is me chum, David Perusek, cultural anthropologist extraordinaire! 

Anyway, here is a list of some of my other favorites:

Paris to the Moon.jpeg
Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnik

 I'll Never be French by Mark Greenside

Notes From A Small Island.jpg
 Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson

The New Italians
 The New Italians by Charles Richards

Monday, October 15, 2012

It's the Little Things that Make You Homesick

I remember one night Maggie and I were watching the comedian, Sinbad (aka David Adkins).  His form of comedy is what is commonly referred to as observational: he has a way of bringing to the surface all the crazy shit we human beings do and has a way of making me just 'split a gut' over it all.  Anyway, he was going off this particular night about marriage.

He said to the audience (and this is as best to my memory as i can remember) "You know what will drive a woman to divorce a man faster than he can turn around?  You think it's the big stuff.  uh-uh.  It's the little stuff.  I have two friends, one republican the other democrat.  They've been married fifty years.  Got another friend, he's an atheist and his wife's a Baptist--that's serious religion.  They're married twenty years.  Got another friend.  He got divorced in three weeks.  Why?  He wouldn't pick up his damn underwear off the ground.  Wife just left him flat. You think I'm joking guys, try it.  You will be trained or divorced.  make your choice."

Sinbad's point about the little stuff is true for me when abroad.  It is not the big stuff about living in another culture that throws me over the edge.  It's the little things.  For instance, as my family and most of my friends know, i swim just about every day.  Here in England swimming is important because it puts me in my routine: i get up, eat breakfast, work until lunch, go swimming, eat lunch, work..  You get the picture.

Anyway, to protect me from swimmer's ear, which is just nasty, i regularly put in my ears Isopropyl alcohol.   Why do I use this in my ears?  Because it is cheaper than buying swimmer's ear drops, which is nothing more than expensive isopropyl alcohol with some saline solution and i am cheap. 

Now, just in case you are wondering, in the states we all know isopropyl alcohol as rubbing alcohol, which you can buy ten carts worth of, if you like, anywhere, i mean anywhere: drug stores, department stores, grocery stores, cosmetic stores, gas stations; it's in our hand sanitizers; it's in our clean wipes; it's in our alcohol pads; and you can get it at varying levels from 50 percent all the way up to 99 percent.

But not in the U.K.   I have been at this now for over two weeks.  First, i tried asking people.  Watch a Brit's face when you ask them for rubbing alcohol.  "What do you want dear?  You want to rub on yourself alcohol?"  Before the drug store woman I was asking could even turn around and announce my question, out loud, in a sing song British accent to her colleague I was running out of the store in complete embarrassment.  "Where did he go luv?" "I don't know, but he went there in a hurry."

I go home and look the term up on Google.  Here, Brits call isopropyl alcohol Surgical Spirits.  Okay, I will try again.  Next store.  "Excuse me, mam, but do you sell surgical spirits?"  "I am not sure, dear, let us have a look.  Yes, here it is."  I take the stuff, buy it, content in my victory, and go home.  Depression sets in.  Evidently, the people on the internet are not chemists.  Surgical spirits is made of ethanol and methanol.  You heard that right.  I am not pouring the latest alternative energy down my ear canal.  And, on top of that, it has castor oil.  What?  Where in the name of all things good can i find some damn isopropyl alcohol?  Oh, and by the way, there is this real need on the bottle to make sure Brits understand that ethanol (which is really just badly cut vodka) should not be drunk--much like Americans need to be told not to drink hairspray or that their hot coffee might burn them or that they should not put a bag over their head, cause it might make breathing difficult.

Third store.  This time I am in York.  Okay, I figure, it is a bigger city than Durham, and perhaps more urban and wordly, surely they have isopropyl alcohol, right, i mean now i am staring to lose it. 

Now, before I continue, an important caveat is necessary.  Notice that not a single male works in any drug store in the UK; it must be an official thing.  And also, and this is very important, the British women in these stores, and that goes for just about any retail establishment I have been in in the UK, are beyond nice.  In fact, they are so wonderfully pleasant and helpful that I simply cannot get mad at them.  Now, if I was in the states, I would just get all 'yuppy' on them and act like the spoiled, privileged professor I am, with the worst thing in my life being my failure to procure isopropyl alcohol.  Here, I just smile and thank them repeatedly for the effort.  So, back to the third store.

"Excuse me, may I speak with the pharmacist?  "Why yes dear."  Pharmacist walks over--also a female.  "Yes sir, may I help you?"  "Yes mam.  I was wondering if you have ISOPROPYL ALCOHOL?"  As I say these words, the pharmacist looks at me like I know something nobody else does--as if I was trying to get into a speakeasy during Prohibition.  (For my student readers, look it up and learn something.)   "Now, dear, why would you need that?"  "Swimmer's ear," the clerk says to her.  "Ah, yes, the swimmer's ear.  Have you tried our other products?"  "No," I say.  I am now in total neurotic form, as clearly the conversation has completely collapsed. "The drops you have on the shelf are some combination of olive oil and other oils.  Or, in the case of surgical spirits, I cannot use that, as it is methanol and ethanol--the former which we use to knock out baby frogs and the latter which we use to run cars.  See, I don't want to put that in my ears.  I use ISOPROPYL ALCOHOL."

Silence.  thought.  Finally, "Ah, dear, you want the special and more expensive swimmer's ear drops; they have ISOPROPYL ALCOHOL in them."  Are you kidding me?  "Yes," I say, that is what I want!"  I am thinking to myself, now we are getting somewhere.  "Problem is, luv, we will have to order it, as we don't carry it in the store."  What?

It's the little things.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Naked Rambler and the Sociology of Deviance

As I stated in my Friday 10-12-12 post on the Ramblers, in Scotland they have something called Scotsway, alternatively referred to as rights of way, which allows the Ramblers and others to, generally speaking, walk free. There are, however, limitations to the Scot's tolerance of rights of way.  Turns out, they draw the line at clothing.  When engaging in a right of way, you need to wear your cloths.  That's right, you read that sentence correctly.  A right of way is not clothing optional.

Why, you might ask, would I be mentioning such a legal limitation?  Because of the NAKED RAMBLER.  The Naked Rambler, as they call him in the press, is actually a gentleman known as Stephen Gough.  (For a complete overview, see this Guardian story--click here)

Gough made the papers the weekend I was in the lower borders, as he was passing through the area, on his way to England--unfortunately or fortunately, depending upon how you look at it, we did not cross his path.  Gould, who considers himself an activist, sees the world "sans vêtements."  More to the point, he seems to have a real issue with people's need to wear cloths, including wearing cloths in airports and courts of law--in which, I might add, he has appeared numerous times naked, resulting in, when combined, over six years in prison.  It might even be more, but you get the point.

So, as a sociologist traveling in the UK, how am I to make sense of this? 

Easy enough, I turn to Goffman's book, Stigma or, more broadly, to the sociology of deviance.  There is so much going on here, from body politics and gender issues to the difference between lightly enforced folkways (which are tolerant of eccentricities such as sagging, which I discuss below) and more strongly enforced mores (protecting people from harm).

So, you might ask, what were the views of Brits and, more specifically, Scots, in the newspapers and magazines?  They, of course, ranged from the quite serious to the utterly absurd, having a got at it with the type of British humor I remembered as a child.  Back int the 1970s I enjoyed a regular diet of Mad Magazine, Saturday Night Live and Monty Python.  In fact, I attribute the absurdist, sarcastic, 'look how dumb adults are' mentality and wit of these creations as crucial to me becoming a sociologist later in life and to my joy of pathetically stupid humor--as me mates, family and students know.  (A side note, one student comment made about five years ago said, "This cat is not as funny as he thinks he is."  point painfully taken).

The serious points made in the papers ranged.  For example, one writer made the argument that people have a problem with the human body and that naturalists are rational, not irrational for their joy of nakedness.  Point taken.  Another author argued that people reacted similarity to Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling and its wall of naked bodies.  Again, point taken--although, i admit i was a bit lost on this one, as Michelangelo wore cloths when hiking.

And, in yet another article, the author pointed out that teenagers, today, walk around with their low-rider pants barely on, derrière sticking out in various unattractive ways, and people say nothing.

Stop the Sag For women--as shown to the left--such a look is called Whale tail: the habit of revealing one's underwear outside of low-fitting jeans (photo and terminology from wikipedia).

For men, it is called sagging--as shown below. (Photo and terminology taken from the New York Times

In fact, one day, in the states, my wife, daughter and I were out for a drive in our hometown of Willoughby when our daughter, about ten at the time, yelled, 'hey mom and dad, look at the penguins!'  I thought, what penguins, where?  She was pointing to two young lads desperately trying to get across the street quickly--all the while painfully trying to remain hip--with traffic approaching fast, walking like penguins, with their pants down to their knees!  I could not stop laughing and we have referred to this look ever since as, "going out penguin... 

Humor aside, the issue of sagging or public nudity does go to the point: social norms are always a matter of accepted convention.  When lots of people do something and when the structures of power--be they teen culture, corporate fashion, government, media, etc--support it, something can quickly become normal, okay, not eccentric.  Closer to the issue of gender: Men could not wear earrings in the 1980s in the states without being considered gay or deviant; then you saw the same homophobic people wearing earrings several years later.  Then there was the hip-hop approach to earrings and so forth.  Bottom line: norms vary from culture to culture, sub-culture to sub-culture and so forth and most of it, as Michel Foucault, the French philosopher points out, has to do with power: who has the right to define who can do something and when, where, how, and why they can do it.  Important caveat: Foucault's point does not conclude with the idea that norms are therefore little more than power-supported whim.  Increasing human rights, for example, for women, minorities, gays and lesbians, different religious perspectives, etc, are hard won and important, slowly increasing the freedom of people throughout the world.

Still, going back to the naked rambler--and I am having a bit of fun here--while I tried as I could to have an open mind, in the end I just couldn't.  I know that sounds small minded and anti-C. Wright Mills for a sociologist.  But, the whole time reading the various newspapers articles about this guy I just kept thinking of that famous Seinfeld episode--The Apology--where Jerry tries to be a nudist for a while to keep his girlfriend at the time, and it just does not work.  Some sociological rules of daily life, Seinfeld concludes, exist for a very good reason.  And, wearing cloths on hikes is one of those rules I strongly support.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Walking with the Ramblers


In the UK there is a group of individuals known as the Ramblers. As stated on their website, they are Britain's "walking charity, working to safeguard the footpaths, the countryside and other places we go walking, and to encourage more people to take up walking. With 119,000 members in England, Scotland and Wales, we've been working for walkers for 76 years."

Scottish Borders in Scotland.svgMy friend David is a member of the Ramblers, so when we went up to his place in Scotland we took, as they say, 'a bit of a walk'--eight and a half miles to be exact, through the rolling hills of the lower borders of Scotland.  As stated on Wikipedia, the Scottish Borders are located in the Eastern part of the Southern Uplands--see map area marked in red.  The region is hilly and largely rural, with the River Tweed flowing west to east through the region.   In the east of the region the area is known as 'The Merse,' which is where we were walking.

Rights of Way

In Scotland they have something called Scotsway, alternatively referred to as rights of way.  Generally speaking, and particulary since 2003, short of airports, private gardens and a few other places, one is generally allowed to walk about.  Most walks follow known paths, trails, etc.  But generally speaking, even the walk we took, moved through farms and farmland, opening and closing gates to various fields.  It was wonderful and so relaxed.  We would pass farmers and say HI and just keep moving, everything done with respect and class.

Here is a bit of video of the area that I took, about five miles into our 'walk.'  What was incredible to me was the fantastic mixture of farmland and animals we walked by: sheep, cows, flocks of pheasants--something one almost never sees in the states, particularly in Ohio--sheep dogs, deer, buzzards and hawks.

Here is a quick video of some sheep on the hill

Here is me speaking "cow," which i speak quite well.

These cows made me think of one of my favorite cartoons from Gary Larson's The Far Side

The group of Ramblers we walked with over the weekend were all, to put a word to it, in their 'retirements years.'  I was a bit worried about the walk before meeting the group, as I have had a bit of bursitis lately in my hips and was rather tired adjusting to my new habitat; plus, I had just bought the hill shoes I was wearing and so had yet to 'break them in.'  I figured, once I saw my older Rambler group, this should be 'easy peasy.'  You know what I am going to say, in my American vernacular, "Daaymn, but they kicked my *ss!"

My experiences, obviously, are anecdotal, as the UK does have an obesity problem, albeit not to the extent it is in the States.  Nonetheless, the relaxed yet vigorous way of living I encountered in Scotland's countryside, its rolling roads and open pastures, is something I could very easily get used to.  It was, overall, a great day.  As I walked I kept singing that line from Led Zepplin's Stairway to Heaven, "if there's a bustle in your hedgerow, don't be alarmed now; it's just a spring clean for the May queen.  Yes, there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run, there's still time to change the road you're on."

Thursday, October 11, 2012

History Can Teach Us Something; Or, how an Italian American like me is also quite British

This picture is a view from the lower borders in Scotland while walking with the Ramblers

This past weekend David and I stayed at his house in the lower borders of Scotland.  On the ride up and back I got a semester's worth of history on Scotland and Ireland.  David's knowledge of British and Irish history is beyond impressive--my head is still spinning from it all. 

The only thing I can compare his didactic to is a five-hour train ride my brother John and I took from Budapest to Prague. 

Just outside Bratislava a woman got onboard with her husband.  She is Slovak, educated in Canada and a professor in the States.  She talked for over four straight hours.  Everyone in our cabin eventually fell asleep--including the woman--but i just kept talking and asking her questions.  John jumped train somewhere near the Carpathian mountains.  In fact, he's still there.  (If you don't believe me, look at his face to the left)  My mum really misses him.

But this all takes me to an important point: contrary to popular opinion, history is not about the past.  History is about the present.  You just have to ask the right question, and boom, time and space collapse into each other creating an n-dimensional reality where the past, present and future exist simultaneously.

 For example, the reason John and I were on that train ride was, in part, to bring the past alive to us. In the states, I tell people I am Italian American.  Truth is, only my grandfather on my Dad's side is Italian.  My mother's side of the family are all Slovak. 

In fact, my grandfather, John Ocenas, came through Bratislava into Vienna to make his way to the states at the ripe old age of 14 or so, somewhere back in the very early 1900s, during the massive wave of eastern European immigration into the states.  Ruby, our daughter, is eleven.  I think of someone that age making such a trip.  amazing! He settled in Scranton Pennsylvania and worked as a coal miner. 

Lincolnshire within EnglandBut, it doesn't stop there.  My grandmother, on my father's side, is not Italian at all.  Rather, she is quite British.  Thelma Hanes is her name.  She lived in Scranton PA.  Her husband, my grandfather, is John Castellani, who also worked but tragically died in the coal mines.  My father was just a child at the time and was sent to live with his grandfather Hanes.  With the family broken apart, my Dad's understanding of our past grew tired and eventually fell asleep.  I am trying my best to awaken it. 

I have been doing a bit of anthropological digging and, while i am not entirely sure, it appears the name is a variant of Haynes, and so it could be Welsh or English.  Either way, more recent historical connections seem to locate most people with the HANES name to the Lincolnshire region, a county on the east coast of England, about an hour's train ride from Durham--see red county on map to the left.  It is also close to Yorkshire, where Maggie's friend and colleague, Jane, at the Cleveland Museum of Art, is from.  What a small world. 

Anyway, all of this makes me think: What does it mean to say I am American, or Italian-American or part British or Slovak?  How do I get my head around my own identity politics? 

For example, my mother's side of the family has been in the states less than a hundred years.  I am third-generation.  I am less sure about my British or Italian ancestry in terms of how long they have been in the states, but it is not much longer. 

I know American culture is like breathing air to me.  But, what about all these other cultural connections?  For example, why am i such a wanderlust?  Is it true, perhaps, that my gnawing desire to go somewhere else is more than just personality?  Could it perhaps be a carryover from a generation of Europeans who left for the states?  David and others I have met here have told me so many stories about the journey their Irish and Scottish ancestors made as they left for the states, settling in Boston and New York and places like where my grandmother Thelma Hanes lived, Scranton PA, to work in the coal mines.  And here I am coming back.  But what part of me has made this trip I am not sure.  so much of it is still sleeping...

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Importance of Travel

As a Fellow at University College, Durham, my board provides me the opportunity to eat in the castle dining hall--breakfast, lunch and dinner.  Last night was our first formal dinner, gown and all.  quick fantastic!!  more on that later.  Monday of my second week in Durham was my first time going to table in castle.  Prior to that i would wake up most mornings feeling a bit down and lonely, like a outsider living alongside of but not included in the world in which i reside.

Now, however, going to table each day changes everything.  Daily i go to eat and meet new faculty--someone in history, a philosopher, a geographer, a classicist, a student working on her doctorate in medieval cartography, etc.  With each conversation I become more and more part of the community here, less a stranger and more a part of things.

As i go through this transformation, which I have done in other countries, something very interesting happens.  As someone said to me today, travel often does not so much reveal to you another country as much as it reveals (brings into sharp relief)  the place from where you come.  It's sort of the idea that all histories are histories of the present; or, as Foucault said, going somewhere else (intellectually, culturally, or even through fiction or the movies) let's us see better and therefore get away from ourselves more easily.  Traveling does this in a very physical, viceral way.

However, there is a trick to it.  One must be willing to become something else.  I have learned, while traveling, to refrain from assertion.  Here is what I mean.  I do not walk around or into conversations ready to assert who I am, what I think, what I see, what I understand--notice all the "I's"?  Instead, i (lower case i) let other people talk; i ask them lots of questions; i ask them about their communities, their work, their lives, their customs--notice the words, them, they, their?  People are people, and when they find you are genuinly interested in them, they will talk to you, or at least that is my experience.  (Of course, one never fails to run into the daily wretch--but that is a point for another day.  As family and friends know, i am working on my grumpy, middle-aged man attitude--yes, Fred, I am taking my medicine. ha!)

As a sociologist I also absolutely love to ask people what they think about the states and our politics, cultures, oddities, slang, etc--particularly if they have traveled to the states.  People are generally a bit nervous to offer their views on your country--as I am careful when expressing what I see about their country to them.  However, if they see you are open to things; not falling back into your "I" but have an open "eye;" then you get into all sorts of interesting conversations--and that is when i find the real opportunity for exchange and learning takes place. 

As a side note, I have to say that, throughout Europe and, in particular, the UK, I am absolutely stunned by how many people know about Ohio, Cleveland, Case Western Reserve, Ohio State and its football (American football, that is) and Kent State University.  Wow!  very cool.

So, what have I learned from all of this?  Most important, for me, is the value of a subtle mind.  The world is not black and white or any one particular color; instead, it is a magnificently varied palette of endless colors and shades of grey, and only a mind not stuck in a particular color or a black/white view of the world can see this--this is what travel reveals to me.  And when you do this, when you see the world in all its color, wow does everything become beautiful!